Chartered accountant, Entrepreneur, Property developer, Resort operator and Founder of the Sun City.
Lives of Courage
Please note: Silber, G. (1999) “Solomon Kerzner” from They Shaped our Century: The Most Influential South Africans of the Twentieth Century. Published by Human and Rousseau. Pp275-278. If you would like to contribute to this biography please click on the contribute tab.
South africa, 1979. Spread across the map like fragments of buckshot, two hours by car from Johannesburg, lie seven tracts of leftover farmland, united by nothing but their supposed independence from the state that gave them birth.
Jointly and severally, they lay claim to a name that is greater than the sum of their parts: Bophuthatswana. But you can call them Bop. If you are a member of the Tswana nation, by decree of the social engineers who divide and rule South Africa, this is the hemi-demi-semi-land you are henceforth obliged to call home. If not, well, you are more than welcome to pay a visit and stay as long as you please. But why on earth would you want to? In the largest of the fragments, in the crater of an extinct volcano in the Pilanesberg Mountains, the answer is taking shape in a monumental fusion of steel and concrete and coloured glass. It will be called Sun City.
In any normal society, if there is such a thing, this palace of pleasure would be seen as little more than an option on the annual getaway agenda: a place to gamble, golf, parski, and soak up the relentless rays of the heavenly body from which it takes its name.
But this is not a normal society. And this is not a normal resort. This is the flashpoint of a revolution. At its core is a man who has finally found his niche, the loophole that will allow him to realise his vision of an Oz, a Xanadu, a place of refuge for the sybarites and the hedonists whose instincts have thus far been confined by the dictates of the apartheid state.
The man is Solomon Kerzner, but everyone calls him by the sun's own nickname. Sol.
The son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, general dealers who set up shop in the ragtag suburb of Bez Valley, Johannesburg, he is a short, wiry-haired man, seemingly incapable of relaxing, with a body clock that ticks like a time bomb and a temper that crackles like a fuse.
He was an amateur boxing and wrestling champion in his university days, but now he unleashes his energy in short, sharp, expletive-laden bursts, obsessing over details that are invisible to those less single-minded and driven to excel. In the public gaze, he is only slightly less intense, given to a wry smile, a dry laugh, or a gravelly-voiced injunction to "party!" He works hard. He parties hard. He consorts with politicians, chieftains, pop stars and beauty queens. He is a chartered accountant.
True, his flair for numbers goes a lot further than the bottom line on the balance sheet. As a child, he had picked up the basics of customer service and commodity trading behind the counter of the Bez Valley cafe. Now, he has worked his way up to the top of the hardest-working business of them all. Leisure.
He is a property developer and resort operator, with an instinct for scale that defines breathtaking excess as the starting point for any capital project. So here he is, in 1979, with a track record for running five-star hotels on the hot and humid beachfront of the Indian Ocean, about to embark on a personal expedition into territory previously uncharted. Not just the territory of the landlocked casino resort, but the territory of forbidden fruit.
In the real South Africa, poised between the first stirrings of township resistance and the imposition of Emergency Rule, the barriers against the Total Onslaught have been firmly and decisively put into place.
Among other things, thou shalt not: throw the dice; pull the handle on a slot machine; mingle too closely with members of other races; watch an undesirable movie or peruse an undesirable magazine; cavort too loudly or consume liquor in public on the Sabbath Day. Except at Sun City.
Here, the world as we know it is no longer the world as we know it. Here, the alleged autonomy of an alleged independent state allows for a slightly more liberal interpretation of the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Here, the floodgates have been opened, and the people of South Africa are free to bop to a different beat. But wait. Let's turn the music down for a moment.
It would be wrong, in retrospect, to place undue emphasis on one man's role in the liberation of a society from decades of social and political repression.
Especially when the man in question is at the helm of a business that places a price of a different kind on the notion of personal freedom. Like everything else in life, it is a gamble. You never know which way the dots will fall, how the Lucky Sevens will align, where the little white ball will land in the blur of black and red.
You take your chances, and the rest is left up to fate.
That's how it is with politics, too. The wheel turns, the chips fall, the thin veneer of the established order gives way to the chaos of quantum change. Before you know it, the revolution has begun, and black and white are standing together in the struggle to make a million bucks from the Great Jackpot Dream Machine.
Operating under a different set of rules in a nominally sovereign country, Sun City helped to set the pace, shift the mindset, and ring the bells for the dramatic transition that was to follow in the nineties.
It would be charitable in the extreme to assume that this had anything to do with a hidden agenda on Sol Kerzner's part. Casino enterprises have little to do with philanthropic change, unless you count the kind that spills into the tray when you pull the right handle at the right time.
On the other hand, as a product of its own place and time, Kerzner's City of the Sun could never claim to be just another spectacular resort in the African bushveld. Too garish to ignore, too fantastic to be real, it was hijacked as a political symbol from the start.
Few foreign correspondents, reporting from the frontline of the state of emergency, could resist the analogy of the Changing Landscape: the way the scrawny veld of the Bophuthatswana bantu Stan, broken here and there by goats, chickens, and tin-shanty settlements, suddenly dips, rises, and leads you into the lush green valley with the glittering, multi-turreted temple in its embrace.
Sun City. It would not be long before people would be singing songs about it. Most memorably, if not melodically, "Ain't Gonna Play Sun City", an all-star anthem on which everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to Jackson Browne vowed that no amount of love or money would entice them to set foot in the satellite of the hated apartheid state.
Others, from Frank Sinatra to Queen to Elton John, were only too eager to accept the invitation, and for a while, a certain sector of South African society was. able to luxuriate in the illusion that they lived in a land where freedom of choice was available to all who had the money to buy it.
But in the real world, not even Kerzner himself could escape the political heat. As other casino resorts began to mirror Sun City's brilliance in other fragmented homelands, there were rumours that Kerzner had paid a healthy gratuity to the prime minister of the Transkei for exclusive casino rights in the territory.
The official investigation coincided with Kerzner's departure for greener pastures, where he would begin putting his energies to the test on projects destined to put Sun City in the shade. By the time he had been cleared of all charges of corruption, it was too late for the Sun King to go back to his roots.
He was well on his way to becoming a global player, a Gambling Hall of Famer, with audaciously inventive casino and entertainment resorts in territories as far afield as Connecticut, Atlantic City, the Bahamas and Dubai.
Now, as we prepare to write the history of the South African century, how will Solomon "Sol" Kerzner best be remembered?
Let's roll the dice. He will not be remembered for creating jobs, opportunities, and development in impoverished quasi-independent homelands. He will not be remembered for his tireless ability to translate outrageous concepts into everyday working reality.
He will not be remembered for his short-lived marriage to Miss World 1974, or the string of sultry supermodels who took her place.
He will not be remembered for the worry beads that constantly clicked between his fingers as he worried and fretted and nit-picked his way through the pursuit of other people's happiness.
Instead, he will be remembered as the man who first led the people of the Rainbow Nation towards their promised pot of gold. The man who built Sun City. The man who, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, forever changed the landscape of the South African dream.